Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mystery Book Review: The Shell Game by Steve Alten

Mysterious ReviewsMysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, has written a review of The Shell Game by Steve Alten. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

The Shell Game by Steve AltenBuy from
The Shell Game by

Sweetwater Books (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1-59955-094-6 (1599550946)
ISBN-13: 978-1-59955-094-7 (9781599550947)
Publication Date: January 2008
List Price: $26.95

Synopsis (from the publisher): The story opens in 2007 when two CIA spooks meet with an American Colonel in military intelligence. The war is going badly, and President Bush, who steadfastly refuses to back down, remains unchallenged at home as Democrats and Republicans continue to toss verbal grenades – positioning themselves for the 2008 elections. Meanwhile, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy will yield enriched uranium within five years -- uranium that can be used to manufacture suitcase nukes.

The United States’ military is too drained to invade Iran, and a preemptive strike is out of the question...unless a nuclear detonation were to occur on in American city -- the enriched uranium traced back to Iran. A U.S. reprisal would strike a death-blow against radical Islam, quell the insurgent violence in Iraq...and yield more oil. Yes, the cost is unthinkable – but if we sit back and do nothing then one day a dozen suitcase bombs could go off in a dozen American cities – bringing with it anarchy and the collapse of Western civilization.

December 2011: Ashley “Ace” Futrell is an oil expert working for PetroConsultants, married to Kelli Doyle, a former National Security Advisor and one of the CIA spooks from the opening scene. When Kelli threatens to expose the plot, Ace finds his existence hurtling down a rabbit’s hole of deceit where the orchestrated lies of the powerful few could lead to the darkest days of human existence... and the death knell for billions.

Review: Steve Alten's near-future thriller, The Shell Game, is such a ridiculous shambles of a novel that it's hard to take it seriously. It's even harder to objectively review.

Conspiracy theorists, radical left-wingers, and the cultural elite will believe Alten speaks the gospel truth in The Shell Game and need read no further here. Everyone else, regardless of political ideology, will likely find the book an aimless and insipid mess.

The Shell Game takes place, for the most part, in late 2011 and early 2012. John McKuhn (a very thinly disguised John McCain) is President, having been elected over his Democratic opponents Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (no name substitutions apparently required) in 2008 due to voting machine fraud, vicious personal attack ads, and countless other dirty deeds attributed to the Republican Party. Leaders of that very same party later assassinate McKuhn ensuring that the Vice President, a hard line conservative in the mold of an even more thinly disguised Dick Cheney, assumes office prior to the election in 2012. None of this is important to the story, but Alten includes it (and much, much, much more) as political fact disguised as political fiction in an effort to get his decidedly one-sided point of view across.

The Shell Game reads more like an unfinished outline for a book than a book itself with chapters that seem almost randomly placed. There are a number of intersecting storylines, none of which are credible and none of which make a lot of sense, that seem half sketched out and not entirely completed. The two primary ones are a plot to bankrupt the ruling monarchy of Saudi Arabia, and a plot to detonate a nuclear weapon on American soil. Alten, not so subtly, pins both of these plots on the Republicans, specifically "neo-cons", a term he uses with such contempt that killers of baby seals are model stewards of the planet in comparison.

Alten might be forgiven for writing such an appalling and tasteless novel had he not tried to make his futuristic allegations more believable by beginning each chapter with quotes from government documents (some "secret"), mainstream literature, historical figures, pop culture leaders, even the Bible. The quotes are, of course, taken completely out of context and serve only to justify Alten's unrelenting bashing of the Republican Party in general, and the current Bush administration in particular. The more credible he tries to be, the more incredible (in the strict definition of the word) he becomes.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Alten's politics or not, The Shell Game is a poorly written and plotted book with one-dimensional characters, mindless dialog, and vapid narrative. It is not a thriller in any sense of the word and is noteworthy only because it is likely to be the worst book of the year, if not the entire decade.

Special thanks to Blanco and Peace for providing an ARC of The Shell Game for this review.

Review Copyright © 2008 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved.

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  1. Actually, despite the reviewers political axe to grind against "The Shell Game," "The Shell Game" is a GREAT READ.

    Yes, it does stimulate the intellect as it parallels issues of the day, and for reviewers who's tastes are for mundane insipid tripe, then "The Shell Game" may be too intelligent for him.

    But, I think most action fiction readers will love it, as most of us want a little intellectual meat on the bones of our novels, ie Crichton, Grisham, Dan Brown, etc.

  2. William, if you condsider that "The Shell Game" could be "too intelligent" for anyone then you are indeed its target market......
    Altens attempts to pimp the book on websites catering to the conspiracy loons only reinforces this.

    Alten appears to want to milk the idiot market that people like "Dr." David Ray Griffen have made a living from. As for the book, parts of it are so tedious that the Congressional Record appears snappy in contrast.


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